Elsewhere: Will The Money Trail Drive Radio Innovation?

A couple of weeks ago, I received a tweet from an Australian chap called Anthony Gherghetta (@wheredidgogogo) who, based on my previous writings about a personalised radio service, suggetsed I consider adding some of them to a collection he was curating over on the writing platform, Medium, about The Future of Radio. I thought about this for a while but, while I was in Melbourne recently, local news about audience figures and money got me thinking about how such a personalised product would be funded. So I wrote Will The Money Trail Drive Radio Innovation? over on Medium (which, I have to say, is a lovely writing platform). As always, I also keep my own copy here but I do suggest you head to Medium to read it!

In the introduction to his 1979 book, The Piccadilly Story, Philip Radcliffe tells how Piccadilly Radio’s broadcast frequency – back then expressed as 261 metres, medium wave – was so ingrained in the Manchester community that shopkeepers would, at a bill of £2.61, simply ask their customers for ‘Piccadilly, luv’.1

For some reason, this – I have always assumed apocryphal – story popped into my mind when sat in a Melbourne coffee shop this week reading about Kyle & Jackie O’s latest audience figures.

By way of a quick summary, last Wednesday’s news was all about the top-rated Sydney breakfast duo who switched stations at the start of the year and, when the first audience figures were released, seemed to have carried most of their listeners to their new morning home. An astonishing switch that generated discussion on my Twitter feed of UK radio pundits. In itself, this has much to say about the power of broadcast radio and why the personalised radio future I envisage, maybe a way off yet.

While there was plenty of commentary about the audience numbers there was, in many ways, a more interesting number buried towards the end of The Australian’s piece on the news. The move had wiped $350 million off the share price of the duo’s former employers Southern Cross Austereo.

Both of these stories – some 35 years apart in their origins – tell of audience scale and it’s relationship to money. Historically, for entertainment media, the two are undeniably intertwined. And this relationship got me thinking, how would the finances of a personalised radio service stand up? In some ways scale and personalisation are not natural bedfellows but does that mean a personalised radio product would struggle to find revenue? In a previous musing on this topic I suggested that sponsored content blocks, mixed with a listener’s own music selection, might be a way forward. But when the audience is combining a unique mix of content selections, can this work? After all, what would the advertiser be buying and can it be sold at a profit?

To help answer that question, and in parallel to any thinking about a future radio product, we have to consider the funding. Is audio content suited to a subscription model so that a radio equivalent of the paywall could be erected? SiriusXM might suggest that it is. But are there many other countries where substantial audiences pay for radio content? None spring to mind. Perhaps there’s a smartphone subscription app-model that may work. But I don’t think that there’s precedent for profitable apps in-car (quite yet) or on kitchen radios. Which leaves us with advertising as the primary revenue model.

There’s a shift in media buying that’s being driven by the connected world whereby advertising space is increasingly traded in real time. On the web, a publisher may offer up an advertising spot to the market in the milliseconds before the advertisement is shown in the browser. One of the leading players in this space, The Rubicon Project, suggested in September 2013 that an average of 40% of online display advertising was traded in this way. In April last year Forrester suggested that almost 25% of online video advertising will be traded programatically by this year.2 The latter figure is important, because this automated trading will become an increasingly important way to generate revenue from television content when consumed online. And if TV goes there, why should we assume radio won’t?

There are many attractions of buying advertising space this way but the ability to easily group audiences that are increasingly consuming fragmented media is one. It’s becoming just as efficient to reach these disparate audiences as it used to be to reach mass audiences by buying, say, Piccadilly Radio.

Interestingly, when researching this piece I couldn’t find numbers for the amount of audio media traded this way. There are companies who specialise in the automated trading of radio advertisements but, when compared to those in the digital display or video space, they appear forgotten. Then again, perhaps it’s not surprising. There are a few stations doing new and innovate things with radio commercials – in the UK, Absolute Radio’s In-Stream is a good example – but they are the exception and not the rule. Therefore where’s the market for the automated trading of radio ads?

It seems to me, radio is missing out. If the advertising world is shifting to more automated way of buying then that means, by necessity, they are buying a connected product. Yet much of radio’s connected offering is simply delivering the same old product in a slightly newer way. For revenue growth, and maybe even for revenue parity, the radio industry has to adapt to the connected world in more ways than just offering up a stream of the broadcast signal.

Undoubtedly, there are many hurdles before there are mass market personalised radio products. Kyle & Jackie O have shown the enormous power of today’s mass-reach broadcast breakfast radio product. Yet, also this week, the BBC announced plans to close the youth-oriented BBC Three television channel. While reduced finances are the reason behind the proposed closure, the channel was selected in part – according to the press release – because it’s young audience “are the most mobile and ready to move to an online world”. A trend that suggests future audiences have different expectations of their media consumption.

There’s a convergence here that the radio industry needs to see: an undeniable shift to consumption on connected devices. This represents opportunities for both sets of radio’s customers. With the right product, audiences will increasingly personalise their radio experience but, I believe it may not be listeners who are the drivers of such innovations. The advertising industry, increasingly looking for ways to better justify their media spend, is pouring an ever growing share of their budgets into automated buying. Radio needs a product to capitalise on this move.

So it maybe that the money trail is the driver of innovation in the radio space and it the advertising industry that pushes radio to reinvent itself for the connected world.

1 Radcliffe, P. The Piccadilly Story, Blond & Briggs, 1979. p9
2 Strictly 24.7% of video spending by 2014.

Timmy On My Tranny

There was something faintly exotic about the mad-cap antics and celebritry filled audio that came out of the radio. I imagine today it would seem tame but our only chart fix was Look-In magazine and, when I discovered it, Smash Hits.

I’ve been re-reading my piece about radio and how my love affair with the medium started; all prompted by a certain person making a big splash on a recent TV show.

It occurs to me that in my radio reflection I listed names that, even today, many would be familiar with, and I started to wonder who in that list jumped out when when people read it? I’m fairly certain one jumped out to many: Timmy Mallett. Whenever I tell people that radio story, Timmy Mallett (along, possibly with Chris Evans) is the name that makes people chuckle most. I guess, people think of Wide Awake Club or the spinoff, Wacaday. But those aren’t my memories.

Timmy Mallet was enormously famous in the North West for his evening show – Timmy on the Tranny – on Piccadilly Radio. At least, he was famous at my school which – to me – meant everybody in the world must have known who he was. And years, and a little rationale, later suggests that we were right. Timmy Mallett won Smash Hits awards which, given they were voted for by national audiences (many of whom wouldn’t have heard his shows), seems to suggest a good few others listened-in. Aunty Boney, Padlock the Poet and Chris Evans’ Nobby No-Level where characters that filled out our homework evenings. And then we’d talk about them in school the next day.

To me, Manchester seemed a million miles away from Wigan but had the advanatage that the biggest stars of the day played Mancheter gigs (I don’t recall anybody playing Wigan, not even Kajagoogoo whose front man, Limahl, hailed from somewhere up the road. I think Bucks Fizz played a sports centre once just outside Wigan, but I may have invented that). And long before I would be able to go and see bands, they all visited Timmy Mallett at Piccadilly. No interviews from studios many miles away, if a chart act played Manchester they visited Timmy (or, at least, all the chart acts I cared about as a teenager did). There was something faintly exotic about the mad-cap antics and celebritry filled audio that came out of the radio. I imagine today it would seem tame but our only chart fix was Look-In magazine and, when I discovered it, Smash Hits (of the awards fame).

So, I guess, well done to Timmy Mallett for getting close on I’m A Celebrity but, to me, he’ll always be the madcap voice coming out of my evening radio. And without a foam hammer anywhere to be seen.

A Ten Year Old’s Happiest Memory

The happiest memory I have is the time I visited the studios of Piccadilly Radio in Manchester in the Easter holidays in April 1981. We were shown around by Julian. We got there ar quarter to four.

As I’ve prevously written, when I was much younger  I was a huge fan of Mancheter’s Piccadilly Radio. So much so that when I was eleven I spent hours writing a letter asking to see their studios. That didn’t quite work out but I got there anyway. A couple of days ago I was sorting through some old papers and discovered that, apparently, when I was in class J3C at Standish High School I declared that visit to Piccadilly as my happiest memory. To read it amuses me now but it’s recreated here for nostalgic reasons:

My Happiest Memory

The happiest memory I have is the time I visited the studios of Piccadilly Radio in Manchester in the Easter holidays in April 1981. We were shown around by Julian. We got there at quarter to four.

First we went into the master control room in which programmes are recorded and it is where the producer sits to make sure the programme is runnning smoothly. At four o’clock we went into studio two w(h)ere DJ Phil Sayer was getting ready for the second hour of his show. As the news was on he told us how the cart machines work (cart is short for cartridge). The carts are jingles and advertisments played on the radio station.

As Piccadilly is an independent radio station it plays advertisments to cover the running costs. Businessees can buy an advertisment to be played at the time of day they pick. It can cost them well over a hundred pounds! There are a maximum of nine minutes of advertismentsin each hour.

After the news finished and Phil faded down the record he announced the first competition of the day, ‘Beat The Intro’ in which you have to guess the name of the record before the words start. It was a phone-in competition but nobody cuuld get through because Julian had pressed some buttons and jammed the lines. When somebody got though, Phil read out one name, there was a crackle, and somebody else got on the air. Phil Sayer was in a panic so he put another record on after the competition and looked in the control room window, saw what happened and told the phone girl to put things right. We left quickly …

Julian then showed us the editing and commercial production booths. When we left my dad bought me a t-shirt. I also got a lot of stickers.

It was a very interesting day. We were there about an hour.

June 2009: I scanned a photo of the original, my ten-year old handwriting isn’t that bad, really.

Radio Reflections

Ask anybody who’s known me for some time and they’ll eventually mention I can talk about broadcast radio a little too much. I think my true anorak tendancies died a few years ago but radio is, to me, the best of all media rolled into one universally accessible package

Piccadilly Radio Logo
Piccadilly Radio

Ask anybody who’s known me for some time and they’ll eventually mention I can talk about broadcast radio a little too much. I think my true anorak tendencies died a few years ago but radio is, to me, the best of all media rolled into one universally accessible package. The best radio sounds like it’s being created for you and, even if the presenters are talking about people who’ve written, emailed, texted (is that even a word?) or called-in, it’s still yours. People on the radio play records for you, they read the news for you and they interview famous people just for you. It’s there when you get-up (and you don’t even have to open your eyes to be part of it) and can be there throughout the day. At various times in the day you pay a little more – or a little less – attention but it can always be with you. You can listen alone or in company, on the move or at home, you can focus and enjoy or it can be your ever-present background.

I grew up listening to the mighty Piccadilly Radio which, with many, many, fewer stations on the dial back then could be heard across the whole of the North West of England. Sure,there was Radio City from Liverpool and, er, Manx Radio, but there wasn’t anything else until you hit some far-off Yorkshire town or even Newcastle, or maybe Wolverhampton if you were heading south. And certainly nothing on my dial that played pop music in crystal clear FM-stereo (I thought this was impressive despite only owning a mono receiver). If the stories are true, ‘Piccadilly, luv’ became shorthand for £2.61 in some northern shops (261 being that crackly medium wave frequency that disppeared when you drove under motorway bridges and was, therefore, not quite modern enough for a ten year old).

You can, no doubt, read in many other places that there was a lot less media back then but the lack of other media isn’t – by itself – that important. To me, the important aspect of that time is that there wan’t anything that a teenager like I was becoming could consider to be theirs. There were no teenage bedroom televisions and only three channels if we could have had them; no connected computers of any sort, gaming or otherwise; no texts or social sites. Books were for libraries and mobile phones belonged on Star Trek or, maybe, Tomorrow’s World. In fact, nothing that was yours aside from a radio or, perhaps, a record player and record players relied on a handful of vinyl you might be lucky enough to own and were not exactly portable. Pop music radio from the BBC was on that crackly old medium wave and we were supposed to like Ed Steward’s Junior Choice. No, for me, interferance-free pop music on 97 MHz.

So for my early teenage years radio became mine, as I imagine it did for millions of others. Pete Baker, Phil Wood, Mike Sweeny, Phil Sayer, Timmy Mallett, Chris Evans, Andy Crane, Susie Mathis, Jim Reeve, Mike Shaft, John Evington, Steve Penk, Tim Grundy, Gary Davies and Dave Ward (along with countless others) became part of our lives; voices that were simultaneously funny, informative and friendly. Piccadilly’s strapline when I first started listening was ‘Your Music & Your Friend’ and it certainly felt that way to my teenage ears.

As with all memories from your formative years, things that once seemed magical are still vivid and I can quite easily remember the excitement: the excitement of the first time I listened to late-night phone-ins using headphones illicitly under the bed covers; the excitement of seeing the DJ’s photographs plastered all over the front of the studio building; the excitement when it was announced Piccadilly was having a ‘Wigan Week’ and we’d see their branded radio car in town and even the excitement of seeing Gary Davies on the Piccadilly road show bus at Haigh Hall. If people are to be believed, rock’n’roll had an effect on a generation in the 50s & 60s, and later, it was Pirate Radio. Today, is it an MTV or something online that people will be looking back at? But for me, Piccadilly is etched in my memory in a way that I find myself recalling snippets like they were yesterday (Susie Mathis’ ‘I’m gonna run, run, run a marathon’ anyone?).

I’m not one of these people that think radio should be like Independent Local Radio (ILR) was back in the late 1970s or early 1980s. The world has moved on. Full service commercial radio of the old style doesn’t have a place anymore but that doesn’t mean that the unique qualities of the medium don’t apply. Despite all the digital, multiple-platform desires of an industry, radio’s ubiquity is its most import asset. Good quality programming still counts. The personal music player (Walkman, Discman or iPod/mp3 player) have been around since the early 1980s. It hasn’t killed the industry yet and, I don’t think it will. Even though I have a computer showing 30+ days of music, I am set here listening to the radio.

I don’t think it’s right to be sentimental about radio. I know that teenagers today aren’t going to have my relationship with radio because their world is vastly different and much more connected but I genuinely believe a cheap device that plays music you like, and can go anywhere, has the power build reationships better than almost any other – except, perhaps, for actually meeting people. And even there, radio can be part of the real-life conversation.

Yes, I can still take along a tranny and listen to my friends (and I really do mean that in the radio sense).

Fined. Big Time.

When I was a child, my favourite radio station was Manchester’s Piccadilly Radio. To me, it was the most exciting station in the world.

I noted some newsworthy stories about the radio industry yesterday but forgot to mention another from last week. When I was a child, my favourite radio station was Manchester’s Piccadilly Radio. To me, it was the most exciting station in the world. Pete and Geoff, who I mentioned yesterday, started their award-winning partnership on that station. It’s now Key 103 and last week was fined the biggest ever financial penalty imposed by a regulator on a UK radio station [source]. Nothing really to add to that but I wanted to note it.